Daschle's exit may slow healthcare reform

Feb. 4, 2009 at 7:48 AM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 4 (UPI) -- The withdrawal of Tom Daschle as the top healthcare advocate is a serious, but not crippling, blow in the drive to reform U.S. healthcare, analysts said.

Daschle, dogged by reports of unpaid taxes, withdrew from consideration as secretary of health and human services Tuesday, leaving President Barack Obama's White House healthcare czar slot vacant as well. He filed amended tax returns and paid more than $140,000 in back taxes and interest.

The search for a new nominee is on "even as we speak" White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday.

Democrats told The New York Times attention was on governors, who because of their jobs run state Medicaid programs, particularly Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Other possibilities include Govs. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania and Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan and former Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon.

The White House is considering replacing Daschle with two people -- one as HHS secretary and one as director of the new White House Office of Health Reform, the Times reported Wednesday. Jeanne Lambrew, who is the office's deputy director, could be elevated to the top spot, where she could advance policy development while a new secretary nominee is chosen, vetted and confirmed.

Some healthcare advocates lamented Daschle's exit while others downplay its significance.

"This is a very real setback for the administration because Daschle has unique qualifications," said Drew Altman, president of Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on health policy. "His withdrawal might result in a loss of momentum, but I don't think it's a fatal blow."

Richard J. Kirsch, national campaign manager of grassroots Healthcare for America Now, said the issue wasn't dependent on Daschle but on Obama's commitment.

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